A Leon County circuit judge has agreed to expedite his hearing of a proposed Tallahassee ethics initiative a group is trying to place on the November ballot. Citizens for Ethics Reform is asking the City Commission to approve the measure before the judge rules next Friday, as they outlined in a letter to city officials this afternoon.
The proposed city charter amendment would create an appointed independent ethics officer and volunteer panel of ethics advisors. That's a change from the city's current plan to hire an ethics officer who answers to the city attorney. After nearly 120 applicants sought that position, City Attorney Lew Shelley says he's whittled them down to a few good finalists, and he's concerned the citizen proposal could derail that effort by replacing the job the candidates have interviewed for with a different position.
The proposed amendment would also create a refund program giving city money back to people who donate to local candidates for elected office, up to $25 per donor. That’s one part Shelley has concerns about, leading him to file a court challenge questioning the ballot language last week.
At last night’s City Commission meeting, he said, “Give me an example in Florida, give me an example in the United States where a local government has tried this, and there’s not one."
The clock is running down on the initiative, which has the support of at least 20,000 petitioners and bipartisan groups including the League of Women Voters and local Tea Party Network. City Commissioners still must vote whether to place it on the ballot, but the Commission meets just once more before the Supervisor of Elections's ballot-printing deadline.
With that in mind, Citizens for Ethics Reform wrote a letter today to Mayor John Marks and the Commission asking them to make a conditional vote next Wednesday: commit to placing the item on the ballot as long as the judge approves its language next Friday.
But it might not be so simple. The judge could approve pieces of the proposal and not others. That uncertainty has some commissioners saying they'd rather wait until after the judge rules, meaning they might reconvene for a special meeting just to vote on the ballot item.
In its letter, the group pleads for the Commission to go along with whatever the judge rules and not make further court challenges.
Citizens for Ethics Reform is co-chaired by Marilyn Wills, a former alternate member of the city's citizen ethics panel that met nearly 20 times this year. City officials say several items the proposed amendment contains were already rejected by the ethics panel, and the $25 refund idea was never vetted at all.
According to financial disclosure records, Citizens for Ethics Reform is funded largely by a Massachusetts nonprofit group called United Republic, which pushes for local, state and federal anti-corruption laws.